“I’ve learnt a lot of good lessons this year,” Aaron Davy said as we chatted about the first hop harvest for Preston Valley Hops late last month.
Aaron and his wife Alexis, along with their kids and dog, moved from Hamilton Hill to Queentown, a little outside Donnybrook about 18 months ago.
Since Aaron’s resume includes brewing at WAs biggest breweries, Little Creatures and Gage Roads, it was probably inevitable he would end up involved in beer again in some way. After a successful trial run of growing hops, Aaron decided to dive into growing on a commercial scale.
He built five-metre tall trestles and with 200 plants across 12 varietals and filled a quarter acre of land and so Preston Valley Hops was born.
Among the varieties grown on the farm there are Saaz, Cascade, Nugget, Chinook, Challenger, Hallertau, Goldings and Perle. Aaron also planted some Victoria, a sister variety to the much-loved Galaxy.
“I am super happy with the way Cascade is going.”
There must be something about the south-west that loves hops, Karridale Cottages and Hop Farm are thriving, just having finished their third hop harvest, and Preston Valley has exceeded Aaron’s expectations.
“The proof is in the pudding, they’re growing really well!”
The Preston Valley land is old farming area that has been grazed for over 50 years “but it’s too good for grazing, we’re right on the river with alluvial dirt so stuff grows here,” he says. Hops are susceptible to pests, disease and mildew so I was surprised to hear from Aaron that he’s not experienced anything like that. Trey over at Karridale* was the same. For whatever reason, these haven’t been an issue for them.
*Trey, is the co-owner along with his partner Olivia, in Karridale Cottages and Hop Farm.
Some plants have grown better than others but Aaron says that was kind of the point of the first year.
Aaron scoured the internet to research hop and hop farms. He found some information from an American university but, “until you put the rhizomes in the ground and grow a season of hops, that’s how you learn.”
“Trey’s been super helpful, he gave me a heap of rhizomes and good advice when I was setting up,” Aaron says.
“I’m going to narrow it down, depending on demand,” Aaron says, “in terms of going to scale, I’ve really got to focus on what’s going to sell and what I can grow well.” Chinook, he comments, has been growing well but he reckons the lupulin production – all that yellow stuff inside the hop cone that has all the oils, acids and resins that make beer amazing – has been lower than expected. As we chat, Aaron picks a Chinook hop cone off the bine, rips it open and sticks his nose in. He does this a fair bit and he knows it too, he loves it. “Actually, this is really good,” Aaron remarks and smells it again, “actually, that’s really good!” The Chinook is planted in three sections because the plants are from three separate sources, “I’ll definitely propagate from that one!”
“That’s all part of it, it’s about being observant and always smelling the hops.”
Currently, the farm is a quarter acre with plans to expand to a full acre, the trick will be finding more plants. “Because there is no industry here, you’ve got to scrap and scrounge and get what you can get.” Normally rhizomes would be used to propagate more plants but Aaron is keen to try cloning instead because it’s a better head start with plants than rhizomes because you’re not disturbing your rhizomes and their root systems. “We have a professional local nursery we are working with,” Aaron says and has taken a heap of cuttings from their yard and so far they’ve had a 75% strike rate. Aaron says cloning over rhizomes is a trend he’s noticed happening more and more in the US. Another option is to get plants shipped from the US but they have to spend six months in a quarantine lab, in that time you have to hope they survive and it’s an expensive process that doesn’t refund if those plants don’t survive. Expansion to an acre will depend on how well the propagated plants survive the winter and available funds after they look at a possibly purchasing a harvester and a cold storage solution.
“It’s been such a cool experience,” Aaron can barely contain his excitement as he describes how the plants grow and change with season-to-season.
“Hops are an amazing plant and they’re so cool and having us here, for brewers to come and pick their own hops and get touch with this ingredient, I think, is very cool,” he says, “the pellet is quite far removed from what you have here.”
Cascade and Nugget, in particular, exceeded Aaron’s expectations which he says make him excited to expand and the future of hop growing in the south-west. Aaron and the other hop farmers in the region are keen to work together, the hop growing industry here is still very new, so it’s going to be amazing to watch over the coming years.